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It was a warning. Kel'nar had not turned around, had not even glanced at him, but Zak knew from his voice.
The eight-year-old sighed inwardly and turned to watch the woods slowly passing by beside him. What a boring afternoon! Only the slowly plodding oxen, creaking cart wheels, and the interminable view of the trail, bordered by forest and stretching off into the distance had filled the afternoon. At first they had talked—he, his father, and his younger sister Violet, but for the past hour, it seemed like there was nothing left to say. And so why not pester Vi? That might, at least, prove to be entertaining. And so Zak had leaned over the edge of the cart and picked long stalks of grass to tickle her ears with, and she had shrieked with laughter and picked her own fox tail weeds to do the same with, and they had worked even better. Then Zak had grabbed a handful of elderberries and he'd thrown them at her, one by one, while she tried to dodge away. That was fun too. But then the berries ran out, and there didn't seem to be any more handy.
Soon Zak spotted an oak tree laden with acorns. He reached up and grabbed at the branches as they passed underneath, and a score of acorns plunked into the bottom of the cart. He lobbed one gently at Vi. It bounced off her shoulder and she laughed. She dodged the next four, though, so Zak began to throw them faster. Violet continued dodging them and batting them away. She was too quick! Zak increased his speed again, but, unfortunately, throwing faster also meant throwing harder. One of the nuts got through the six-year-old's defenses and smacked her squarely in the forehead. Oops. Violet didn't cry—she was quite tough that way—but she did gasp quite sharply. And that was when Kel'nar had said, quietly but firmly, "Zaknafein."
"Sorry, Vi," the boy mumbled. His sister made a point of flipping her long white hair over her shoulders huffily, then crossed her arms, turned, and pointedly looked the other way.
"I don't care," Zak thought. "She knows I didn't mean to. She'll come around soon enough." That was the way it seemed to work between them—they had a lot of little fights, but after a while they'd be friends again, without either of them having to say anything.
Violet wasn't quite ready to be friends yet. Zak's back was turned. She bent down and silently scooped up an acorn from the bottom of the cart. She took careful aim for the back of her brother's head, drew her arm back, and let the missile fly.
Not a moment after she had released it though, Kel'nar's right arm snapped back, and he caught it in midair, mere inches from Zak's head. Now it was her turn to be warned. "Violet."
Her jaw dropped. How did he know? And how had he possibly moved so quickly?
Drizzt hid a smile over the antics of his children. They had traveled several miles today and Zak and Violet seemed to grow more restless by the minute. The sun was low on the horizon, and this seemed as good a place as any to make camp. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Zak and Vi signing to each other in the intricate drow hand code, something that he was diligently teaching them. Arguing in the drow hand code. Drizzt frowned slightly, but knew they would get over their disagreement soon enough. And no doubt they would be happier after the evening meal. The dark elf guided the oxen over to the side of the trail and into a large clearing, easing them to a stop.
Behind him, Violet was frantically signing to Zak: "Why is Kel'nar stopping? Do you think he saw us fighting? Are we in trouble?"
"I don't know," Zak signed back.
Earlier in their trip, after a particularly nasty fight between the siblings, Drizzt had made them get out and chop and carry firewood for a quarter hour. He wanted to teach them not to be mean to each other.
Zak remembered how sore his shoulders had been from chopping wood for so long. Vi remembered how her arms had ached after stacking so much wood in the cart. "Sorry about the acorn, Zak," she said, aloud so her father would hear.
Drizzt sprang lightly to the ground and turned to regard his children. He could guess their thoughts well enough. "Supper," he announced, a trace of a bemused smile on his face.
Drizzt unhitched the two oxen. His keen drow hearing told him there was a stream nearby. After leading the animals there for a drink, he staked them in some tall grass. Then he reached into his pouch and pulled out the ornately carved onyx panther figurine. In an instant, both Violet and Zaknafein were at his side. He often let the children call the panther from the Astral Plane. Tonight he placed the figurine in Violet's small, dusky hand.
The six-year-old cradled the statuette carefully and then placed it on the ground. "Come, Guenhwyvar!" she called in her childish voice. Grey mist began to swirl around the figurine and soon the sleek panther materialized. Guenhwyvar greeted the children by licking their hands and submitted to their hugs and petting with infinite patience. Then she leaped up, paws on Drizzt's shoulders, and licked his face. The great cat's weight drove him back a few steps. The ranger laughed and threw his arms around the huge panther. "It's good to see you too, my friend." Drizzt slipped the figurine back into his pouch and laid a hand on the panther's head. "Watch over Zak and Vi," he said. Then he bent his bow and strung it, and disappeared into the woods to hunt supper.
Zak and Violet romped around with Guenhwyvar for a few minutes, and then busied themselves finding rocks for a fire pit. They made the fire ring in a sandy area with no grass, as Kel'nar had taught them.
Drizzt returned just as the sun was setting, a partridge in each hand. He soon had a cheery blaze going to roast the meat. Cattie-brie had sent along some biscuits, and it made a nice meal.
Cattie-brie had seemed tired lately. Zak and Vi were good children, but very energetic. She had needed a break, so Drizzt offered to take them on a camping trip for a fortnight. Cattie thought that was a great idea. They'd told the children about the trip a few days before they were going to leave. Both were so excited that they could hardly sleep, and more rambunctious than ever. Their excitement was contagious, and Drizzt had to admit that he soon shared it. The ranger knew a picturesque spot beside a mountain stream where they could camp, but the trouble was getting to it. Neither Zaknafein nor Violet had the endurance to hike very far, nor were they experienced enough at riding to make the trip. So that left ox-cart.
Cattie-brie made the arrangements in town, and finally the morning dawned when they were to leave. The day was bright and clear. Cattie and Drizzt packed the cart with bedrolls, a small bundle of extra clothes, and a large blanket that had been coated with wax in case they needed shelter from the rain. Cattie-brie added a small pot of savory herbs and one of rock salt, as well as a large sack of tough, dry, travelers' biscuits that would last for the whole trip. Then she added a trivet, cooking pot, pan, three small wooden bowls, and three pewter spoons.
Drizzt filled several water flasks and added three enamel mugs to the other dishes. Then Cattie-brie brought out a small pouch of dried tea leaves, a bag of figs, and one of dried strips of deer meat. "In case the hunting isn't good," she explained. Last, she added a skin of wine.
Drizzt surveyed the items in the cart. "We'll only be gone for a fortnight," he said, "but we have enough here for a moon!"
Cattie-brie laughed. "Well, I don't want my family going hungry," she said with a satisfied smile.
Drizzt drew her into a long, lingering kiss. "I love you, Cattie-brie."
"And I, you, my Drizzt."
Then they had awakened the children, had breakfast, and set off. Zak and Vi waved excitedly at their mother until they couldn't see her any more, and she waved back until the cart disappeared over a ridge.
After three short days of travel they had arrived at the mountain campsite. Drizzt taught the children about various plants, trees, animals, and birds. They fished, hunted, hiked, and played games. They romped around with Guenhwyvar, and Violet made daisy chains while Zak carved wood under Drizzt's watchful eye. In the evenings they sat around the fire, and the children listened with rapt attention and wide eyes as Drizzt told them stories.
Now they were on their way home. The children were asleep in their bedrolls by the fire, but Drizzt would not sleep this night. This area was not as safe as the mountain camp had been. And so he kept watch, as the moon made its slow journey across the night sky. The wind was growing chilly this night, although it was still early in the fall. Drizzt drew his cloak tighter around him and added more wood to the fire. He stood up and silently paced the perimeter of the camp to keep his legs from getting stiff. The drow paused. Had he heard something? There were many harmless animals in the woods, but there could be enemies as well. Drizzt swung himself up into a tree for a better vantage point. He let his eyes slip into his innate Darkvision. There were many warm shapes—birds, owls, rabbits, and even a deer lying in a thicket of branches.
At the fire, Violet stirred and awakened. Zak was asleep beside her, but where was Kel'nar?
Drizzt could see the blue glint of his daughter's eyes as she scanned the woods. She was only looking at ground level, not up into the trees. No doubt she could see the many nocturnal animals as well.
"Kel'nar?" Violet was signing in the drow hand code. Her movements seemed jerky and nervous. "Kel'nar?"
Drizzt reached over and snapped a twig beside him. Instantly Violet's blue eyes were looking up at him. "Violet," he signed, "I am here. Do not worry. I am watching over you." Even in Darkvision, he could see her relax. The six-year-old snuggled back down into her bedroll and was asleep again in minutes.
After about a half hour, Drizzt dropped down from the tree to pace the camp again. He was halfway around when he heard a noise behind him. Immediately the drow dropped into a crouch; Icingdeath came out in one hand. Twinkle would give off too much light. Six humanoid shapes were approaching the camp. Goblins! Drizzt slipped Guenhwyvar's figurine from his pouch. "Come to me, my shadow," he whispered. Four of the goblins stepped into the clearing as the panther materialized. Two hung back at the edge of the woods. Guenhwyvar immediately began circling around behind the goblins, silently and invisibly.
Drizzt drew Twinkle and stepped between his children and the goblins, revealing himself in the light of the fire. He knew a few words of the guttural goblin tongue. "I mean you no harm. What do you want?"
All four of the goblins responded by drawing their short swords. "Kill!" one of them yelled, and they charged the ranger with high-pitched shrieks.
Drizzt heard his children stirring behind him. He exploded into action, dropping a globe of darkness over the two goblins on his left, and parrying the blades of the two attackers on his right. Their short swords couldn't get inside his long blades, and Twinkle soon found a lung to pierce. Even as the goblin fell, foamy blood bubbling from its mouth, Drizzt turned to look back at his children.
They stood open-mouthed by the fire.
"Run!" he commanded. Arrows began to whiz past his ears. So the back two goblins were archers. Guenhwyvar's six hundred pounds of claws and teeth finished one, and then Drizzt heard Zaknafein scream from the edge of the woods. Had he been hit? The sudden pain of a shallow cut across his left forearm brought Drizzt's mind fully back to the battle at hand. He had been parrying the goblin's attacks without thinking. Within moments Icingdeath slashed across the wretched creature's throat and it breathed no more.
Drizzt looked up to see Guenhwyvar's powerful jaws closing over the second archer's neck. He heard a sickening crunch as the neck bones snapped. The ranger stalked toward his globe of darkness. Why hadn't the goblins come out? He plunged in, scimitars first. The blades met nothing but empty air. His boots landed on flesh and bone. It seemed the two had killed each other in their panic in the sudden darkness. Drizzt drove a scimitar down hard on either side of him to make sure. Satisfied, he stepped out of the globe and scanned the clearing. The only goblins in sight were those whose bodies were rapidly cooling on the ground. Guenhwyvar was prowling the perimeter of the camp.
Drizzt rushed across the clearing to where Zak and Violet lay huddled in the woods. Zak clutched his left arm. An arrow shaft protruded halfway between his shoulder and elbow. Violet was unharmed. Relief washed over Drizzt. He had feared . . . But that didn't matter now. "Thank Mielikki," he breathed.
Zaknafein's lavender eyes, so unusual for a half drow, were glazed over with pain and shock. "K-Kel'nar." His teeth chattered as he spoke.
"I'm here, Zak." Drizzt reached over and quickly snapped off the arrow shaft close to Zak's arm. Then he scooped up his son, being careful of his injury, and carried him over to the fireside. He wrapped several blankets around the boy. Violet was watching, wide-eyed. "He's going to be just fine," Drizzt reassured.
The six-year-old nodded, but the frightened look didn't leave her face.
"Violet, I need you to go to the wagon and get my other tunic." Drizzt paused. "And the wine."
"All right." Violet turned around. It seemed an awfully long way from the fireside to the cart. And there were creatures in the woods. She took two steps away from the fire and hesitated. She could hear her own heartbeat pounding in her ears. The air seemed thick and suffocating. Suddenly Guenhwyvar was at her side. Violet placed a hand on the panther's soft fur. She could breathe again. She started toward the wagon, the panther never leaving her side.
Drizzt leaned over and tore open Zak's sleeve. He kept his face carefully impassive as he examined the wound. He could feel Zak's eyes studying his face for a reaction. Inwardly the dark elf frowned. The arrow was lodged quite deeply. He studied the angle of entry. If he didn't pull it out at exactly the same angle as it had entered, he would made the wound worse.
Zak was still shivering, although his teeth has stopped chattering. "Kel'nar . . . it hurts."
"I know, Zak. I need you to be brave."
The boy nodded slightly, almost imperceptibly.
Damn those foul goblins! Why couldn't he have taken this arrow? Why couldn't he have done a better job of protecting his children? No. Drizzt forcibly pushed away the waves of guilt that were crashing over him. He had done all he could. He had to remember that.
Violet returned with the tunic and the wine. Drizzt took both from her and began tearing strips off of the garment to use as bandages. When he had enough, he untied the wine skin and supported Zak's head with one arm. "Drink this."
Zak took a few swallows and coughed. "It tastes awful."
Drizzt almost smiled. "It's an acquired taste. Drink more. It will ease the pain."
Zaknafein obediently took a few more swallows. "I think it's rotten, Kel'nar."
This time Drizzt did smile. "Fermented," he corrected. "Not quite the same." He helped the boy drink more. Then he poured some of the wine over the impaled arrowhead. The eight-year-old moaned and closed his eyes. Drizzt found a stick lying nearby. "Bite down on this," he instructed. "I'm going to pull it out."
Zak put the stick between his teeth and closed his eyes again.
Drizzt grasped the broken arrow shaft firmly. "Ready?"
Drizzt yanked suddenly and swiftly. It was out. A gush of dark blood followed, and after that, brighter red blood. Drizzt took a few of the bandages he had made and applied firm pressure to the wound. Zak sighed and opened his eyes, relieved that the worst was over. He pulled the stick out of his mouth. Drizzt could see the deep teeth marks in it. "You were very brave," Drizzt said quietly. "I'm proud of you." Zaknafein smiled weakly and closed his eyes again.
Across the fire Violet snuggled under her blankets and was asleep in minutes. Guen went back to her perch in the tree. After a while Zak's breathing became slow and rhythmic as well.
Drizzt glanced at the moon. It had been a half-hour. He gently removed the bloody cloth from Zak's arm. It still bled. The ranger covered the wound again, switching hands. Zak moaned in his sleep, but did not wake. After another half-hour Drizzt checked the wound again. Blood still oozed from the arrow hole. The ranger slipped a dagger out of his right boot and laid the blade in the coals of the fire. He did not want to do this. Hopefully it wouldn't be necessary. He would wait a bit longer. After another quarter-hour, Drizzt picked up his dagger. The blade was glowing bright red. He tried to prepare his mind to do what needed to be done. Offering a silent prayer to Mielikki, Drizzt carefully removed the bloody bandages. He sighed with relief. The bleeding had stopped. He thanked the goddess as he laid the dagger to cool on a patch of bare ground. He then bound up the wound with fresh bandages, made sure Zak was snugly covered with blankets, and found his own bedroll. Guenhwyvar was still watching over them. Perhaps he would sleep a few hours this night.
The next morning dawned chill and gray. Drizzt built up the smoldering fire and began heating water for tea. He went into the woods and returned shortly with his pockets full of a certain tree bark known to alleviate pain. Then he dragged the bodies of the dead goblins into the woods and went to wash in the stream. Finally he sent a tired Guenhwyvar home to rest on her own plane. By this time Zaknafein and Violet were awake as well. Drizzt gave them each a mug of tea, half a biscuit, and a handful of dried figs for breakfast.
Violet watched with fascination as Drizzt carefully unwound Zaknafein's bandages and re-dressed the wound with fresh strips of cloth. The six-year-old kept up a steady stream of questions between bites.
"Was the arrow poisoned, Kel'nar?"
"Was it in deep?"
"How come it didn't go all the way through?"
"The bone stopped it."
"Did his bone break?"
"Did the arrow stick into his bone?"
"Is Zak gonna have a scar?"
The girl's eyes lit up. "Wow, Zak! Isn't that exciting?"
Zak shrugged noncommittally. "I guess." His face was drawn and pale. Drizzt met his eyes knowingly as he tied the last knot. He reaching into his pocket and pulled out a strip of willow bark.
"Chew on this," the ranger instructed. "It will lessen the pain."
Zaknafein accepted the bark gratefully.
Drizzt studied his son's face. If only he could take this pain from him and bear it himself! But he could not. In his mind Drizzt replayed the battle over and over. If only Guenhwyvar had killed the other archer first! Or if he'd seen the goblins sooner. Could he have knocked the arrow aside in mid-flight with a scimitar? Why didn't he throw a dagger at the archer while he was fighting the other goblins? How would Cattie-brie react when they got home? Drizzt closed his eyes momentarily. This line of thinking was futile. He couldn't protect his children from everything. He was mortal. He could only do so much. And he believed he had done all he could. He had to believe that.
"Kel'nar?" Zaknafein was looking at him curiously. "What's wrong? You have a serious look on your face."
Drizzt forced a smile. "Nothing, Zak." Violet was off feeding handfuls of grass to the oxen. Drizzt stood up and brushed the loose dirt from his leggings.
Drizzt turned back to regard his son. "What is it, Zak?"
The boy lowered his voice. "You told us that we shouldn't lie."
Drizzt felt his face growing warm. He knew where this was going. "Yes," he said slowly.
"So why did you lie to me just now?"
The drow was silent for many moments. When had Zak become so perceptive? It reminded him of Cattie-brie. "Well, I didn't want you to know what I was thinking," he admitted. "I apologize for being dishonest. I should have said, 'It's nothing you need to worry about.'"
Zaknafein nodded, satisfied. "It's not your fault that I got hurt," the eight-year-old said after a moment. "Mum won't be mad at you either."
Drizzt stared at his son in amazement for a few moments. Then he nodded his head thoughtfully and went to break camp.
By noon Violet was fuming inside. After breakfast she had had to wash and dry the cups by herself while Kel'nar hitched up the oxen and re-packed the supplies. That didn't seem fair. Sure Zak's arm was hurt, but it wasn't like he couldn't use it! And to make matters worse, this was the first time Kel'nar hadn't helped her up into the wagon. Except for last night. And that bothered her the most. It wasn't that she couldn't climb up by herself, but it was hard. She sort of had to jump and grab at the top of the box, then haul herself up high enough that her feet could reach the middle of a wheel. Then she could stand on it with one foot and swing herself over. The effort left her hot and panting for breath. They had been all packed and ready to go, and Violet had been waiting expectantly by the cart while her father poured a bucket of creek water over the hot ashes in the fire pit. He'd glanced over at her absentmindedly and said, "Get in, Vi." Then he'd checked the harness on the oxen, picked Zak up and swung him easily into the cart, and they had been off. He didn't even seem to notice how hard it had been for her to get in. He didn't even seem to notice that she was there! All morning he kept glancing back at Zaknafein, giving him bits of the special tree bark, and asking him how he was doing. He hadn't even looked at her. Violet felt alone and forgotten. It made her sad . . . and angry. Now she was fuming inside.
When they came across some elderberries, Violet grabbed a handful. This would make things better. She began throwing them at the back of her father's head. It was a game they would play—usually she and Zak would both throw the berries at Kel'nar, and he would try to dodge. It always left them breathless with laughter. Not today. After the third berry bounced off of his head, he turned around and said, "Violet! Stop that."
Violet's hand froze in mid-throw. The berries slipped from her suddenly-limp fingers and fell soundlessly to the cart floor. Kel'nar's tone had sounded so . . . so . . . irritated! She stared at the back of his head for a few moments in mute disbelief. After a while she realized her mouth was hanging open. She shut it. Indignantly Violet turned to see Zak's reaction. He was asleep, sprawled half on the bench and half on the floor. Asleep! Somehow that made Violet even angrier. Her own brother wasn't even there to defend her! To defend her against their own father, no less! She hadn't done anything wrong. Why did Kel'nar act that way? Why should she need Zak to defend her from him? Violet felt the rage building inside of her. She crossed her arms and glared, first at Zaknafein for not being there for her, and then at the back of her father's head. "Fa'la zatoast," she mumbled under her breath. It was something she'd heard her father say once when he was fighting a troll. She was almost certain it was a bad word in drow.
Drizzt turned his head. Had he heard what he thought he'd heard? Violet was looking down, kicking the hard little elderberries back and forth across the cart floor. He was afraid the scuffing of her feet would wake Zak.
"Violet, that's too noisy—"
"You wouldn't care if Zak was doing it!"
The hardness in her voice surprised him. Perhaps he had heard correctly before. Drizzt studied his young daughter's face for a few seconds before she looked away and crossed her arms. Her blue eyes had looked positively icy. He tried again: "Zaknafein is sleeping. We should let him get his rest." The tone was firm but quiet.
"But it's not night time!"
Zaknafein stirred in his sleep but did not wake.
"Keep your voice down—"
"I'll wake him if I want to!" Violet's icy blue eyes locked onto her father's purple ones. His face was unreadable. She found she couldn't hold his gaze. She dropped her eyes back to the floor. He stopped the cart. This was not a good sign. And he called Guenhwyvar. Also not a good sign. To make matters worse, the poor cat looked very tired—it was too soon.
"What?" Once again Violet was remembering the seemingly interminable task of stacking firewood in the cart.
"I asked you to get down."
"What're you gonna—"
"We're going for a walk."
Daughter trailed behind father as they walked through the woods. The sun had finally come out. The leaves were all changing color and the sunlight filtering down through the trees gave the place an almost magical aura. Violet didn't notice. What an awful morning it had been!
They came into a clearing where a fallen log lay. Drizzt sank down on it. Violet sat too, but she didn't look at him. They sat in silence for a long while. Drizzt was choosing his words. And actions. He studied the tree tops, and she, the ground. "Violet," he began finally, "I care too much about you and Zaknafein to ignore it when you act inappropriately or do something that is bad for you or others. I—" Drizzt stopped. He had turned to look at her and realized that the child was crying silently. Drizzt was admittedly confused. How had the girl gone from muttering fa'la zatoast, and stubborn defiance, to being awash with tears in mere minutes? Even with the many years he had already lived, his girl was so much harder to understand than his boy. Drizzt stared at her in puzzlement for a few moments. He was trying to determine the reason for the tears when she burst out:
"Do you love Zaknafein more than me?"
That was the last thing the drow was expecting to hear. "Of course not, Violet...what would make you think that?"
The surprise in his voice convinced her that his words were true. "Well," she began between sobs, "you never helped me into the wagon, and then . . ."
Drizzt put his arm around her and listened as his young daughter retold the whole morning from her perspective, including all of her thoughts and feelings. When she had finished he reassured her of his love for her, and that he loved her and Zaknafein equally. Violet gave him a watery smile, and he wiped her tears with the edge of his cloak. Then he said he was sorry for making her feel bad, and would she help him take care of Zaknafein?
Violet was happy to have a special job to do. And Kel'nar had said he needed her! That made her feel so important! She was supposed to talk to Zaknafein—when he was awake—and keep his mind off of his arm, because it would hurt a lot today. Poor Zak. She would do her best.
Zak was still sleeping when they got back to the cart. Guen looked tired, but alert. Drizzt swept his young daughter up into a bear hug for a few moments and then set her in the wagon. Her smile was all the thanks he needed. Drizzt smiled too, but his smile was decidedly more tired looking. He hoped that he could always heal all of his children's hurts. Drizzt's gaze swept over Zak, then Vi, then Guenhwyvar. "It's time to go home," he said. "For all of us."
Kel'nar = Dad